Home of the Incas and high in the sky, Cusco will leave you breathless.
From shopping for Inca trends to enjoying world-class Peruvian cuisine to engaging in cheap extreme sports, you won’t run out of things to do in Cusco.
Altitude lethargy is different from jungle lethargy. Rather than melting into and with your sweat among the palm trees, the thin mountain air of Cusco makes it feel as if your veins, from your heart to your fingertips, are lighter than the air they’re missing. Like if you stood up too quick, without inhaling as you ascend, you’ll float away. The only solution is to take it slow, drink water, and enjoy the healing and energizing effects of the bitter coca tea leaves like the natives have done for centuries.
Cusco, shaped like the sacred puma, sits 3,339 meters (11,152 feet) high in the sky, nestled near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes mountains. Qusqu, in Quechua, the language of the Incas, was the capital of the powerful Inca Empire until Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadores swaggered in like White, horse-mounted gods and destroyed Inca temples in favor of Catholic churches. Inca stone bases and small even steps blend seamlessly with Spanish balconies and smooth cobblestone streets, an aesthetically pleasing and constant reminder of the muddling of the two cultures.
While Cusco is often overlooked as a stopping point before the famous Machu Picchu, I find that I’m having a hard time leaving, despite the effects the dry air is having on my skin. Maybe it’s just the hostel I’m staying at or maybe it’s the way every time you turn your head, you seem to rest your eyes on an image from a postcard, but the picturesque city seems like it provides endless opportunities for activities and sights.
Where To Stay:
I am staying at EcoPackers hostel on Santa Teresa, 375, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While some people may opt to stay at Pariwana, the party hostel chain with a roof bar, I find EcoPackers the perfect mix of cozy and trendy. When you walk in to the hostel, rated Top 3 in South America by TripAdvisor in 2013, you are greeted by an open Spanish-style courtyard with lawn chairs and hammocks. Around the lounging guests are other rooms to relax in after a long day of traveling or exploring, including a dining room with a beautiful Machu Picchu mural, a fully stocked bar, and a living room with leather couches, bean bag chairs, a fireplace and movies playing on the big screen. The staff is friendly and professional, the wifi is decent, and the place is simply convenient, offering laundry services for 5 soles, locks for 3 soles, towels for rent, an ATM, a tour agency on site, a proper bar, an affordable restaurant, breakfast and coffee included, coca tea leaves, candy and drinks for sale, a book exchange and hot showers. The dorms and bathrooms alike are clean, comfortable and warm. Rates range from around $11 for a bed in an 18-bed dorm to $18 for a 4-bed dorm to $56 for a suite with a private bathroom. I paid $12.50 for a bed in a 10-bed dorm where I met plenty of kind, interesting people from all over the world. The hostel also offers promotions of four nights for the price of three in February and March.
Where To Eat:
Nuna Raymi– Located just outside the Plaza de Armas, this warm restaurant caters to tourists with a menu in English while still remaining authentic and affordable. Most main dishes cost anywhere from 31-33 soles, or $12-$13. I tried an alpaca dish covered in a plum and chincha (purple corn) sauce, served with a creamy rosemary spaghetti and a quinoa-crusted trout filet covered in a citrus-ginger sauce and served with vegetables. Did I mention that if you show your EcoPackers bracelet, you receive 15% off your bill?
PachaMama– Named after the Inca goddess mother nature, this small restaurant is like so many others calling out to you near the Plaza de Armas. Nevertheless, I found their Aji de Gallina, a very traditional Peruvian dish of chicken and potatoes in a slightly spicy yellow sauce, to be divine. I was doubly pleased by the offering of a salad bar with my meal and the kitchen’s willingness to substitute my rice for vegetables, all for 25 soles.
I’m also a sucker for street food. Things worth trying are “choclo con queso,” (big corn with melted cheese), ANY street meat, guinea pig (like the Quechua Jesus ate), and empanadas, sweet and savory.
Where to Drink:
Mama Africa in the Plaza de Armas, next to Mushrooms, is a great club to get drunk and dance with locals and tourists alike to a good variety of music from salsa to techno to hip hop. They also offer salsa lessons!
KM 0 in the stylish San Blas barrio plays live music every night in a smoky atmosphere. Sip on a chilcano and puff on a hookah while you listen to local artists.
What To Do: As a tourist town, Cusco offers a wide variety of activities to partake in while enjoying the sights. Here are a few that I tried:
Free Walking Tour:
First of all, I’d like to say that I love free walking tours. I’ve joined them all over the world, from Krakow to Barcelona to Quito, and the guides are always incredibly informative about the history and architecture of their city. Of course, the tours are not completely free as the guides work for tips, but they more than earn it with their positive energy and helpful tips, and by pointing out the highlights of the city that you might not have seen on your own.
I believe EcoPackers usually offers one that meets at 11:40, but for whatever reason their tour was canceled on the day my companion and I went, so we met up with a different group, called Free Walking Cusco, in the Plaza around 12:15 for a two hour tour.
As our guide walked us towards the beautiful Compania Church, he began to explain how the Inca and Catholic cultures combine. While we weren’t able to enter the church without paying a fee, he described the famous Last Supper painting inside, with Jesus and his apostles dining on a big Peruvian style loaf of bread, a guinea pig, and beer, Peter’s cheek apparently full of coca leaves. On our walk, our guide spoke about Cusco as a region very strongly connected to the cosmos. The northernmost part of Cusco, called Saqsaywaman, he said is the best location to see the movements of the stars and to find portals to other dimensions. This Inca spirituality has been repressed by the Catholic religion, but it is prevalent that the locals still take this way of thinking to heart.
Our guide led us through the winding streets, up steep stairs, making all of us pant from the exertion made difficult by the altitude, to the bohemian neighborhood called San Blas. The neighborhood was styled like Granada, Spain, as can be identified by the signature Andalucian balconies, but is also influenced by the early Middle Eastern residents, painted clean white and blue to ward off the evil eye. I was pleased to see original arches over the doors, one claiming to have been built on September 9, 1660.
While in the now-artsy neighborhood, we went into a music shop to sample some of the local tunes. An artisan who makes these curious small guitars (the Spanish wouldn’t let the natives play their guitars so the Incans created their own, small enough to fit under a poncho) called charangos, among other Peruvian instruments, played for us the most amazing music on 16 strings. You could almost hear the history of the Andes mountain region coming from under his fingertips, sorrow making way into joy as he applied more or less pressure to the acoustics.
At the end of our tour, we were treated to delicious pisco sours, a classic Peruvian cocktail.
Mercado de San Pedro:
Every city has its own lively market. The San Pedro market is your one-stop shop for souvenirs and groceries, tchotchkes and tripe, hot soup and cold juices, Chakana necklaces and harem pants, ceramics and cat food. My friend Laura and I spent about three hours there yesterday, haggling over prices of hand-made hats and alpaca blankets to be sent home to friends and family.
Not far from the San Pedro Market, this smaller and calmer market is filled with hand-woven, Inca-inspired, old as dirt, cut from stone, tediously beaded, beautifully painted goodies. Go to the San Pedro Market first to see what the best price of items is, because this market tends to try to charge a bit more for their wares.
Horseback Riding near Saqsaywaman:
Saqsaywaman (signifying Satisfied Falcon in Quechua) is a walled fortress of even higher altitude than central Cusco in the north part of town. This smooth-stone blocked complex, built in 1100, is said to have a strong spiritual presence. Legend has it that when the Spanish followed the Incas there from Cusco during the wars, the outgunned and outnumbered Peruvian warriors would tackle the conquistadores over the cliffs, killing themselves as well as the Spanish, rather than die at their hands.
The historical park costs 70 soles to enter, but we found a way around that while still including another activity. Try taking a cab to Cristo Blanco, a place where red-cheeked children play soccer in fields next to mountains and alpacas, and asking about the horses, caballos. Our cabbie’s family just so happened to own horses for hire, and a ten-year-old boy named Raul tailed behind our horses on a tour among infinite, dry mountains and plateaus to the backside of Saqsaywaman, some really cool caves, a pretty lagoon, and la Templa de la Luna. The horse ride cost 30 soles, but I tipped little Raul an extra 5 for being such an informative and equestrian-skilled guide.
The tour dropped us off in a rather secluded spot, but Raul told us how to get into Saqsaywaman. We snuck in among the tall eucalyptus trees and admired the beauty of nature and the scattering of an occasional ruin. Laura and I each took a minute to sit and meditate on the ground, and something about the energy of the place and the vibrations of the earth beneath me and the whistling of the wind around me made me feel rooted to the world, and very much a part of it, however small. All I could think was, I am grateful.
Bungee Jumping: Right near our hostel is the office for Action Valley Cusco Adventure Park. As Laura and I were walking by, we decided to see what it would cost for our first bungee experience. An hour and $95 later, we were on our way to the outskirts of Cusco to free fall among the watching mountain people. When we got to the venue, which also offers paintballing, a climbing wall, and a slingshot, we were instructed to jog and stretch to warm up. I went first, listening intently to the instructions in Spanish as I was strapped in by my legs, waist, chest and neck. Up the steel-caged cherry picker 122 meters, a few deep breaths, and a gentle push from my guide and I was falling, falling and then something happened that I can only truly describe with a noise like “hhuuuuunnnfff.” I felt the tightness of the harness where there was just only air, bounced a few times, and finally settled, feeling the weight of my upper body as the blood rushed from my feet to my head and I watched the tall, thin trees spin around me. I heard the guys working the bungee yell, “Abrazos, Rebecca! Abrazos!” What? Hugs? I looked up, or was it down?, and saw the white landing circle quickly getting larger as it came up to greet me, and saw the men who had yelled at me for hugs with their arms outstretched, and opened mine up just in time for them to catch me and settle me down on a mat. It took me a few tries to stand up, but I finally did with a smile on my face. The next day, I felt like I had been hit by a bus, but it was well worth it.
Get a Tattoo: On another whim, Laura and I decided to get tattoos to symbolize our journeys. Tattoo Willka in the Plaza offered us the low price of 90 soles each for our small, separate mountain-inspired tattoos. The shop was clean and well decorated, the artist was skilled, and it cost about $70 less than it would have in Boston or New York.
Get a Massage: I totally would have done this if I weren’t terrified of anyone touching my muscles after the shock of bungee jumping. Women on the street offer massages to passerby for as cheap as 20 soles an hour. That’s like $6, people. I can’t attest to whether or not they’re any good, but it’s still an option for weary travelers.
Choco Museo: This free museum of chocolate hooks you in by offering free samples of chocolate on the street. Learn all about the cacao plant and the history of chocolate. You can even take a chocolate workshop and learn how its made from bean to bar.
More Walking!: Cusco is not too big of a city, and if the weather is nice, every street seems to offer a beautiful sight. Cruise the Avenida del Sol after the Plaza de Armas, looking in at shops as you pass by the Qoricancha, a revered Inca temple dedicated to the sun god Inti. Pay a braided haired lady in traditional mountain garb to take a picture with her and a baby alpaca. Check out the churches and cathedrals if you’re into that sort of thing. Take in the mountains around you, rising like gods above the tiled roofs. The city is just gorgeous. Enjoy it.
by Rebecca Bellan